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November 29, 2010


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"......Chalmers leaves open the possibility that "pure consciousness" of some sort could be experienced by us humans."

---The 'pure' consciousness of some sort could be experienced by what? What would be this 'experience' obtaining or generating
something or non-something?

---Does this experiencing 'something/non-something' need some sort of stimulation or activity to engage in the act of experiencing?

Ok, ok, so go and finish the book, then tell me.

John Searle, UC Berkeley, wrote what I think is a pretty spot-on (even if a bit acerbic) critique of Chalmer's book several years ago. Here is an exchange between both of them in the New York Review of Books. Ironically, I found that Searle seemed to understand Chalmers' own view better than Chalmers himself!


David, thanks for the link. I purposely didn't read any reviews or critiques of Chalmer's book before I wrote this first post about it, because I wanted to stick with my reaction to the book, not someone else's.

After reading the first page of the NY TImes interchange between Chalmers and Searle, I still lean toward Chalmer's side. I think Searle is misinterpreting Chalmers basic premise: experience is something different from neurological goings-on in the brain.

Those goings-on are highly, perhaps perfectly, correlated with experience. But what Chalmers calls "phenomenological" and "psychological" understandings are in different philosophical and epistemic worlds.

As he says in the book, this comes down to an intuitive understanding, or problem in need of explanation. Maybe Searle has an alternative way of experiencing life. I resonate with what Chalmers is getting at, but not everybody will.

You can put me in a brain scanner and analyze my neurology as much as you want. That still doesn't add up to my conscious experience. I think Chalmers argues this point well. Last night and this morning I read a few more chapters in the book, and remain impressed with it.

Haven't gotten to the "panpsychism" part. I suspect that Searle is overstating Chalmers mystical propensities, because so far he writes and thinks like a hardheaded scientifically minded philosopher.

Actually Searle has long championed the notion that computational models cannot explain consciousness and that merely saying that the brain is the origination of self-reflective awareness is not sufficient to robustly understand the phenomenon. Searle, as you know, is famous for his Chinese Room thought analogy, which in his updated style he translates as "you cannot understand first person experiences by third person descriptions."

So, on this score, I actually think Searle is basically symapthetic to what Chalmers is getting at (the "hard problem"--qualia), except that Searle doesn't feel that Chalmers' approach (or Roger Penrose's for that matter) really advances the cause.

In any case, there is no getting around the fact that Chalmers book has had a very frutiful life and caused much discussion on the issue.

Now it is really cold here and I have to turn the thermostat up to beyond 70.... wait, is my thermostat conscious? Do I have a right to do that?

Ah, Chalmers has taken over my brain (jk).

"Actually Searle has long championed the notion that computational models cannot explain consciousness and that merely saying that the brain is the origination of self-reflective awareness is not sufficient to robustly understand the phenomenon."

---Then, what would explain or robustly bring understanding to the phenomenon?

More neuroscience and a lot of patience

Douglas Hofstadter deftly addresses Chalmers in chapter 22 of "I Am a Strange Loop".

I like Hofstadter's example of "liphosophers": people who believe in the nonphysical quality called Leafpilishness. When a liphosopher comes across a pile of leaves, he exclaims (as Hofstadter imagines):

"Aha! So there's another one of those rare entities imbued with one dollop of Leafpilishness, that mystical, nonphysical, other-worldly, but very real aura that doesn't ever attach itself to haystacks, reams of paper, or portions of French fries, but only to piles of leaves! If it weren't for Leafpilishness, a leaf pile would be nothing but a motley heap of tree debris, but thanks to Leafpilishness, all such motley heaps become Leafpilish!"

There are also semantic problems and contradictions. Dave Chalmers says his zombie copy believes he isn't a zombie, and believes so sincerely. But isn't believing something sincerely a kind of feeling?

And when philosophers describe these zombies, they use words like "drone" when imagining how they would speak, as if they would sound like our computer dictation programs. Or they imagine zombies playing baseball with solemn expressions. But it was just agreed that that our zombie counterparts are utterly indistinguishable from us, the only difference being some intangible nonphysical quality (like "Leafpilishness"). There's a funny double-standard there.

Though "naturalistic dualism" seems like a catchy term, what would distinguish it from any other kind of dualism? Surely no experiment could do so. I just don't see this as significantly different than old-fashioned dualism, or some sophisticated woo woo, or at best another Entity of the Gaps.

George, your description of zombies isn't how Chalmers describes them philosophically. They aren't drones, or solemn, or different in any fashion from us human beings. So there is no double-standard as you describe it.

What Chalmers is pointing to -- and this took me a while to grasp after I started reading his book -- is that conscious experience is something different from brain states. However, some people don't see that there is a difference.

But our first person subjectivity is clearly different from third person objectivity. How neurological goings-on relate to conscious experience is the big mystery, the hard problem. Chalmers doesn't claim to have solved it. However, zombie thought experiments and the like are useful for demonstrating that the hard problem actually exists.

We can imagine someone being exactly like us, aside from not having an experience of the world. What constitutes that "aside" is the main subject matter of Chalmer's book.

Brian, my description of zombies is that they are "utterly indistinguishable from us". I am quite sure I am using Chalmers' model here.

You've misread my comment. My point was that I've caught philosophers (sorry I can't remember where) using non-emotive words like "drone" to describe these zombies while _also_ saying they are utterly indistinguishable from us. That slip-up is revealing. I don't remember if Chalmers was guilty but I think he was (sorry no reference at hand).

In fact I cannot imagine a zombie version of me who is reacting, laughing, crying, running, jumping, and loving all exactly like me in appearance while not possessing the same internality which produces those behaviors.

I am quite familiar with these zombie experiments and I find them all to be square circles. Hofstadter describes it well--it comes down to some magic goo which finds minds to glom onto--and only some kinds of minds but not others. Leafpileishness with a capital L.

If you really want to understand where I'm coming from then see if you can get your hands on chapter 22 from Hofstadter's book.

I see another George on here - better change my name to Georgy Porgy.

I wonder if philosophy of mind is the correct approach in trying to explain subjective consciousness. Science, or neuroscience, precedes from the basis that consciousness has emerged from matter. However, Chalmers and certain philosophies of mind, seems to suggest an additional element to consciousness, but i am not sure why this is needed.

Even the simplest lifeforms, single cells, are designed to sense (perceive) their environment. Tho cells are not thought of as being 'conscious', especially from our anthropormorphic perspective, is consciousness not simply an awareness of our environment?

Thus, perhaps each cell is conscious in its own limited way. It senses and reacts to its environment subjectively, but not uniquely. Other cells of the same type, behave in the same limited way.

Consciousness, as understood from a human perspective, seems to imply something more - not only free will but a subjective experience of colours, tastes, etc. Of a 'self' that experiences the environment.

But just as cells have evolved into more complex organisms, so to are more complex organisms ultimately made of simpler cells.

Humans are such a complex organism, and it follows that the most successful organisms are likely to be those that percieve their environment best. An organism that is able to have a sense of self in relation to its environment would clearly not only be advantageous but necessary. Animals do this to varied degrees, but surely it is just a matter of degree that allows for the extended awareness of time and space, that have evolved in the human animal.

What is a brain state(s)?

Could a particular conscious experience be a particular brain state? If not, and that's ok, then what would be the 'hinted at' or the source of a particular 'conscious' experience?

I'm not trying to make a big deal regarding any of this. The topic is just very interesting.

George, I've read "I am a Strange Loop" and enjoyed it a lot. I'll take another look at Chapter 22. Well, after writing that, I just did -- quickly.

I can understand Hofstadter's objection to Chalmer's position. But I think it comes down to an intuition that Chalmers talks about. Either someone sees a problem with experience/consciousness, or they don't. I do, along with Chalmers, so naturally I resonate with his book.

I'll probably write more about zombies in a post later today, so won't duplicate those thoughts here.

My basic notion is this: I don't know the answer to what consciousness is all about. Nobody does. I just enjoy the way Chalmers raises questions, and systematically explores some plausible answers in a fashion completely compatible with science.

Brian wrote: "is that conscious experience is something different from brain states."

I am confused. If you take away the physical brain, does consciousness remain? Again, we would have to believe that there existed a trans-brainial whoof of something that existed independent of the workings of the brain rather than generated by those workings.

jon, Chalmers is clear about this: the brain is necessary for consciousness to arise in humans. His view of consciousness is quite subtle. In many ways Chalmers sounds like a materialist neuroscientist, because he sees the physical and the phenomenal as intimately (perhaps exactly) correlated.

Meaning, when goings-on inside the brain result in a perception, emotion, thought, or whatever, we have a subjective phenomenal experience that corresponds to the objective neurological functioning.

Still, Chalmers holds that consciousness is non-material, though natural. It's a nuanced argument, which I can't do justice to, even though I've read most of his book. He strikes a middle ground between extreme materialism and extreme idealism, giving some good arguments for why this makes sense.

Some random musings...

(1) You are like a wave on the ocean -- you form from the action of other waves, you have a distinct identity for a while, and then you contribute to other waves as you fade away and eventually disappear, returning all of your water to the ocean...

(2) I'm a big fan of Chalmers, mostly because he doesn't jump to conclusions.

(3) In the Chalmers interview linked in this post, Chalmers mentions of a consciousness meter (specifically the lack thereof). But consciousness meters do exist -- I can detect my own consciousness, and therefore I'm a consciousness meter, at least for my own consciousness. Perhaps that is as far as the technology might be able to go.

(4) In additional to consciousness meter technology, we also have the technology *right here in physical reality* to create beings with consciousness. This technology is called "sex". As far as we know, it involves some physical processes. If we can replicate these physical processes in the lab (OK, OK, I know some of you have already replicated these processes in a lab... ha ha) then we can create artificial consciousness.

(5) As far as we know, the process for creating a conscious being uses conscious beings as ingredients, sort of like waves creating waves on the ocean. (Yeah, yeah, I know that wind, rocks, earthquakes, etc., also create waves, so sue me!)

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